Saturday, April 5, 2008

cry, the beloved country...

“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzim-Kulu, on its journey from the Krakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griaualand.

The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guard men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.

Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For the grown red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The tithoya does not cry here anymore.

The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn way like flesh. The lighting flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and girls are way. The soil cannot keep them anymore.”

...that's the opening chapter of:

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, not stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”

...and that's the title-phrase and paragraph from Chapter 12.

Lyric prose, is what the writer of the introduction called it. Not the entire book, although it is close. But the sections when he paints pictures with words like poetry. Often it is of the land, South Africa. a character in the novel just as important as any other... many have said. he’s also poetic when he speaks of the issues that surround the land and it’s people, not just the geographic landscape. of the political issues. the social issues. he describes a land so intertwined with its people (or vice-versa) that when he speaks of one, he also speaks of the other. they are of the same spirit. this land and its people. a richly diverse and seemingly irreconcilable people.

and, at least for me (one who has not seen all this first hand), this is full of paradox. non-Africans (as in the book blacks are simply called “non-Europeans”) laying claim to the land of an oppressed people and justifying that claim by saying they know better and are in a better position to care for it. but, again, i have not been there. and i imagine there are people there, "non-African people," who truly believe this is their land, too. the land of their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers. it is a complicated history and, now, an even more complicated present i’m sure.

Alan Paton says of the unborn inheritor of this land, “let him not love the earth too deeply... let him not laugh too gladly... let him not be too moved... for fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.” a sad truth. that the fear is inevitable b/c the reality is dire. that instead of combating the fear and its cause people are left only with giving up their love of the land and freedom. but luxuries are often mistaken for freedom. and one can give up luxuries, and even compromise on comfort, without giving up or even compromising freedom. in turn, the reward for this compromise is that one can continue to love the land. his/her land. and maybe even gain a deeper, more profound affection by realizing that it is also their land, our land. idealistic, i’m sure. but that is my own humble opinion.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I was trying to quote Alan Paton in an essay about the importance of soil fertility, and found this online, which was perfect.
    -From an arab-jewish american who has come to understand the world better living with Bedouin in Israel.

  2. you're most welcome, leilah! apologies for the delay in writing back on this, but do tell me more about your work. i'd like to hear about it.